An ounce of silver has the same weight as an ounce of sand

A graduation address by Father Frank Brennan SJ AO, friend of St Vincent’s and guest speaker last month at a UNSW graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Law and the Institute of Environmental Studies, during which he received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws.

Last December, I was in New Orleans, that most enchanting of southern US cities. Staying at Loyola University, I enjoyed the charming southern hospitality not only in the piano bars and at the university but also on the tramcars and in the streets, which had been invaded by football fans from all over the United States for one of the big college football finals.

Since then, the levee banks of New Orleans have been swept away by Hurricane Katrina. We have all been reminded how fragile our hold on nature is; and just as fragile is our hold on morality, law and order.

Our usual consolation as we go about our daily lives is that it could never happen to us. I daresay many residents of New Orleans thought the same thing. Congratulating those of you graduating with Masters of Environmental Management, I urge you to do all you can to maintain the levee banks of our cities and continent so that we might live securely in our land for generations to come. I also urge you to speak up when you find government or developers proceeding with developments which are doing violence to our relationship with the land and with nature.

Congratulating those graduating in law, I am aware that some of you will not practise as lawyers in courts or in law firms. But you are now all citizens who are better armed to scrutinize laws and policies which place at risk the moral and legal levee banks of our social life together. One levee bank now used by all other equivalent societies is a bill of rights. Without a bill of rights, we Australians need to be more vigilant as our national government with control of the Senate, with tighter party discipline than enforced in other democracies, and with a reduced sympathy for the scrutiny of international bodies, tries to deal with the threats to society in a post-September 11 world while maintaining appropriate civil liberties. You will recall that the High Court of Australia has already said that it is powerless to reel in government even if it wants to keep stateless asylum seekers in detention for life without court order or supervision.

Prior to my year’s study leave in the United States, I was much taken up with Australia’s policy on asylum seekers. After my first visit to the Woomera Detention Centre in 2002, I went to Canberra to meet with Minister Ruddock. One of my government contacts warned me that they were sick of the moral outrage from the churches and other advocacy groups. I was urged to keep cool. I kept cool until Easter that year. I then wrote to the minister:

“My three hours in the detention centre on the evening of Good Friday convinced me that it was time to put the message to you very plainly despite its public unpopularity and despite your government’s immunity to moral outrage: ‘Minister, this is no place for kids.’ When children end up in the sterile zone against the razor wire with tear gas and batons around them in Australia, it is time for all parties including the Commonwealth Government to stop blaming others and to effect policy changes so that it can never happen again.”

If you are to maintain a passion for law with justice, there is no substitute for being able to eyeball the victims as well as the government decision makers. Never presume that the public are less moral than you…

In the end, the government did apologise to the mother of the seven-year-old boy whose bruises I had seen after he had been hit with a baton and tear gas. And finally government has decided that a detention centre is no place for kids.

You law graduates have been privileged to attend one of the great law schools of the nation. You are well positioned to live fulfilling professional lives dedicated to law and justice. We need your vigilance and eye for the victim and for the decision maker.

Like courts, we often have to balance competing interests. The scales of justices are a powerful image in the law. Our Chief Justice has warned that this sort of balance is no easy matter. Reflecting on the law and values, Murray Gleeson has said:

“A set of scales can tell you that an ounce of silver has the same weight as an ounce of sand. The scales cannot tell you whether an ounce of silver is more valuable than an ounce of sand; you need some other standard of measurement for that purpose.”

So may all you graduates in law and environmental studies find the right balance in your personal and professional lives, and may Australia be the fairer and more secure as a result of your labours. Without you, our scales of justice will be tilted, laden with sand; and our levee banks too will be in jeopardy.

Uniken Issue 20, October 2005
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